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The Goblin Emperor by Katherine Addison

Goblin Emperor.jpgI read this book because it's a nominee for the Hugo for Best Novel, although even before I knew it was a nominee I had been intrigued by the title and the cover. When I found out that it was a novel of court intrigue, I developed doubts, but I remained curious. I have read novels of court intrigue that I enjoyed, but it's not a sub-genre I seek out. Also, Elfland and court intrigue are not something that I associate with each other. But I do love stories about Elfland and Faerie, so yeah, I was curious.

The protagonist is Maia, who is the half-goblin, half-elf son of the elvish emperor, living in exile since his mother's death because the emperor thinks nothing of him. The novel begins with Maia learning that his father and all his other sons (by other, elvish wives) have died in an airship crash, leaving Maia to inherit the throne. Maia enters a world of hostile high born elves, and he is completely unprepared. As he negotiates his way from one personal and/or political crisis to another, it quickly becomes clear that the airship crash was not accidental. Someone plotted against Maia's detestable father, and it appears they are plotting against Maia too.

Indeed, if the airships weren't enough, the court intrigue tells us this isn't the Elfland of Lord Dunsany. In my list of quibbles and complaints about the book, the primary one would be that it falls afoul of some of the criticism Ursula Le Guin leveled against Katherine Kurtz's Deryni books in her essay "From Elfland to Poughkeepsie". The injection of Machiavellian (and later, Marxist!) politics into Elfland feels like the injection of the mundane into the magical. I suspect I'm out of touch with modern trends in Elfland, but I was actually uncertain why this particular story involved elves and goblins at all. Traditionally Elfland has been an otherworldly realm that works by different rules than the human world. Why bring what looks like human political struggle into Elfland? Why create an Elfland where time flows just as it does in the human world, where elves are mortal, and where magic is rarely spoken of and never actually practiced? By the end of the book I was beginning to see a glimmer of an answer to this question, but more on that later.

Related to this primary complaint was my feeling that the elves weren't very elvish. To reverse William Atheling's old formula, calling the people in this book elves is like calling a smeerp a rabbit. They look like elves, but they don't act like elves. Again, partly this is because what these elves do is plot and scheme for political power, which is a terribly worldly thing for an elf to do. But even physically there's a major oddity, which I struggled with from the start: the elves (and goblins) apparently have floppy ears that can be moved around, drooped, and pinned back to express emotion. They are like animal ears, specifically dog ears. This is a new feature in elves, and for the most part I didn't like the bathetic animal overtones it created. However, if the intent was to bring elves down to the level of the human animal, which is what I suspect is going on in a variety of ways in this book, it does succeed.

I felt equally unimpressed by the steampunk aspect of the novel in the beginning, because it just seemed as though airships and pneumatic tubes had been pasted on in a completely ornamental, unintegrated way. As the story progressed, however, the steampunk engineering ideas became more central to the plot, and in fact a big steam-driven engineering project developed thematic resonance with the story of Maia's unique political temperament. Furthermore, the steampunk elements were used to introduce a theme of Enlightenment and of scientific revolution in Elfland that seemed to directly challenge the idea of Elfland as a magical realm. As much as I continued to feel that this was a misuse of Elfland, this was the point at which I began to understand what the book was really up to. This wasn't really fantasy, this was a form of science fiction, and the intent was very much to haul Elfland into the mundane, mortal world. The elves were the aristocracy, and they were being dragged kicking and screaming into modernity. Once I understood this I thought, well, okay, if that's what you're up to, why not give us elves building steam spaceships and landing on the moon? That might be fun, actually, and this seems pretty obviously the first book in a series.

And despite my complaints and quibbles (elvish comic strips, really?), I did find this book completely gripping and enormously fun. It's a real page-turner. The death of the emperor and his heirs and Maia's succession to the throne are announced in the very first chapter, and the story moves from crises to crises, problem to problem, and from mystery to mystery after that. The science fiction novel it most reminded me of was C.J. Cherryh's Hugo-winning Cyteen. Both feature smart, isolated young people thrust into a world of constant crisis, constant confusion and fear, groping their way through an obstacle course of hidden menace toward an uncertain goal with only their wits and compassion as guides, desperate for any kind of kindness or friendship. Like Cyteen, this seems like a very fannish novel to me, with the half-breed Maia standing in for the kind of awkward, anxious, blushing, knowledge-hungry, socially-clueless, ostracized adolescent who reads the literature of the fantastic. He's ugly, and he doesn't know what to say to girls (or anybody else, for that matter). It's also a feel-good fairytale about kindness and justice being rewarded with power and loyalty. Maia must overcome the racial intolerance of elves (whose extreme whiteness is constantly emphasized and contrasted with goblin blackness), and he shows an enlightened attitude toward women, gays, and lesbians, too.

The Goblin Emperor has a pretty good shot at winning the Hugo both because it wasn't on a Puppies slate and because the other novel that wasn't is a sequel to the book that won the Hugo last year. The high fannishness of it doesn't hurt either. I would still say that this elves-without-glamor approach to Elfland is highly problematic in all the ways that Le Guin enumerated in her great essay (including a not very convincing attempt to Elizabethanize the language), but if Katherine Addison (a pen name for Sarah Monette) sends elves to the moon, I might just take the trip with her.

Comments

( 13 comments — Leave a comment )
randy_byers
Apr. 15th, 2015 06:54 pm (UTC)
So now I'm reading other people's reviews, and I came across this at Pornokitsch: "High fantasy - from Tolkien to Brooks to Hobb to Jordan to Rowling to Eddings to Sanderson ... The great writers ..."

And that's what I mean about being out of touch with modern trends in Elfland. For me the great writers of high fantasy are Dunsany, Mirrlees, Eddison, and, yes, Tolkien, with modern heirs in Le Guin and John Crowley. The writers in the Pornokitsch list are purveyors of extruded fantasy product. Ah well. Kids these days!
kalimac
Apr. 15th, 2015 08:52 pm (UTC)
Hobb was a once-good writer who sold out (but who didn't have much choice if she wanted to earn a living). Rowling was a good children's writer who developed elephantiasis. Of the others, the less said the better.
randy_byers
Apr. 15th, 2015 08:56 pm (UTC)
Do you mean that Hobb's earlier books were better, or that she was better when she wrote as Megan Lindholm? I loved Wizard of the Pigeons when I read it a year or two ago.

As for Rowling, I bounced off the first book, but I know that many people whose opinions I respect do like her.
kalimac
Apr. 15th, 2015 08:58 pm (UTC)
"Lindholm" is better than "Hobb", yes.

I enjoyed Rowling's first. But as a light, bright children's fantasy, not as anything serious. Then she began slowly sinking in to the mire.
voidampersand
Apr. 16th, 2015 04:29 am (UTC)
That's rather harsh. Do you really think Assassin's Apprentice was a step down from Luck of the Wheels?
randy_byers
Apr. 16th, 2015 02:48 pm (UTC)
Hobb is a fitting reference in the context of this review, because apparently Sarah Monette rebranded herself as Katherine Addison because the books she published as Sarah Monette sold poorly. The Pornokitsch review says the Monette books were grimdark, which from the description of it there sounds like not my cuppa, but who knows.
voidampersand
Apr. 17th, 2015 03:27 am (UTC)
Sorry. I was trying to reply to kalimac but somehow it ended up on your comment. I'm a big fan of both Megan Lindholm and Robin Hobb.

Anyhow, I think I should look for some Monette books.
wrdnrd
Apr. 16th, 2015 05:47 am (UTC)
Your review is fascinating, because just at the point where i was thinking, "Hmm, elves and political intrigue, i can totally see that," you got to, "But that's NOT HOW ELVES WORK." So now i'm wondering where my impression that this is how elves very well *could* work comes from. The list you quote isn't MY particular list of "great 'high' fantasy" writers:
- Tolkien, yes (OBVS)
- Brooks, NO (hahahaha, no)
- Hobb, "Assassins" books pretty gripping
- Jordan, meh never had the least interest in reading him
- Rowling, enjoyable and pretty well executed, but "high" fantasy??? NO
- Eddings, are you fucking kidding me?? he is in NO WAY a "great" writer
- Sanderson, no idea who this is and i'm not wasting time looking

I mostly agree with your personal list, although not Crowley as i thoroughly hated Little, Big and never wanted to try anything else. Not that i much admit to that, because i once got into an argument at one of Mary Kay's parties when i told someone that a friend had hated one of Crowley's books and i *thought* it was Little, Big (this was obviously before i'd read it) and the person harangued me for about 10 minutes about how i was clearly misremembering what my friend had told me because no one could POSSIBLY hate Little, Big. Then i read it and by the end found myself thoroughly angry at having wasted that portion of my life.

In conclusion: Still wondering where my impression that elves and political intrigue could work perfectly well together. Hmmm....
randy_byers
Apr. 16th, 2015 02:54 pm (UTC)
I'd be happy to lend The Goblin Emperor to you if you want to give it try.

I'm curious why you don't think Harry Potter is high fantasy. Looks like one to me, but that's looking in from the outside.

You share a hatred for Little, Big with Jo Walton, by the by. Needless to say I have a much higher opinion of it!
wrdnrd
Apr. 21st, 2015 06:30 pm (UTC)
I would love to borrow it! Thanks! You could either mail it to my lonely campus box, or we could do lunch -- your choice!

HP isn't high fantasy to me because there's too much intrusion of the modern, mundane/Muggle world. The wizarding world never felt separate enough from modern Earth for me to really think of it as a high fantasy world.

I really *wanted* to like "Little, Big" more than i did. The conceit was fascinating, but i found the people mostly insufferable.
daveon
Apr. 15th, 2015 08:37 pm (UTC)
I'm about 20% in at the moment and while I'm enjoying it, the development of the court intrigue and Maia is excellent, I did trip up on the worldbuilding a bit too.
randy_byers
Apr. 15th, 2015 08:51 pm (UTC)
She has created an enormously sympathetic protagonist and tells an exciting story.
kalimac
Apr. 15th, 2015 08:53 pm (UTC)
Dunsany did have his steampunk side, actually. He had this unforgettable story about a man who flies a WW1-era biplane to Mars ....
( 13 comments — Leave a comment )

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